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What Proximity Is Worth

This post contains excerpts from a piece in mereorthocoxy.com.

Being a blogger and writer on the Internet, there are many amazing people from all over the world who I “know” and have occasional online exchanges with. On rare occasions I get to meet them in person at things like the Q Conference, and it’s a delight for which I am very grateful.

But more and more I see that the relationships that matter most are the ones right in front of me: My wife, church, neighbors, co-workers, the members of the life group I lead, the college students I teach or mentor. These are the people who inhabit my incarnational reality, who show up in my daily and weekly rhythms, who know me in an integrated way. These are the people I grow with. If any of the ideas I gleaned from Q are to develop into good-advancing action, it will be in collaboration with these people.

This is not to diminish the goodness of my digital friends, contacts and social network; nor the value in attending annual conferences like Q. It’s just to say (and it probably goes without saying) that the “back home” relationships, particularly in the local church, should be the priority. But this is harder than it sounds. It’s easier to find a tribe of like-minded kindred spirits online or at national conferences; much harder to make community work with the “hand you’ve been dealt” in physical proximity.

As my pastor likes to say, it’s often harder to love and serve the guy across the street, the crotchety landlady, the awkward coworker, than it is to go on a mission trip to Myanmar or support a cause on the other side of the world. People who go to the ends of the earth or take up “radical” calls are to be commended, of course, but the “ordinary” calling of domestic faithfulness and commitment to community is never to be diminished.

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes about what we are to do with the “where do I begin” dilemma in the face of all the problems and suffering in the world:

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.

Augustine is right: We should show “special regard” for what and who is right in front of us.

As idea heavy as the recent Q Boston conference was, one of the thematic main ideas of the conference was that people should matter at least as much as ideas, communities as much as concepts. One speaker suggested that entrepreneurs build successful businesses not by thinking of ideas but by focusing on people, observing them and caring for them.

This was evidenced in speakers like Dana Tamanachi, a graphic designer who got her start designing chalk art for her friends’ parties in Brooklyn, and parlayed that into a business with clients like Nike and Oprah.

Michael Gerson’s talk (one of my favorites) suggested Pope Francis as a model of cultural engagement for contemporary evangelicalism. Why? Because while Francis holds firm on certain convictions and concepts, he is resolutely people-centric and relationally oriented. Too often evangelicals have chosen principles over people, Gerson suggested, but Francis is a model for balancing both.

The false dichotomy of “people vs principles” was on fascinating display during the LGBTQ discussions, particularly a panel that included Gabe Lyons interviewing David Gushee and Dan Kimball. Both Gushee and Kimball have felt the tension of being relationally proximate to LGBTQ people while wanting to hold to biblical principles that preclude same-sex marriage.

Gushee started with the traditional view but then changed his mind after he came to have relationships with gay people. Kimball grew up with gay friends and didn’t think anything of it; only after he became an evangelical and encountered Scripture’s witness on the matter did he feel any tension between what he believed and the people he knew.

While Gushee decided he couldn’t hold the two in tension and ultimately re-interpreted Scripture through the lens of his relationships, Kimball concluded that he must hold Scripture’s authority above the authority of relationship/experience, but that this did not foreclose the possibility of having loving, profound friendships with LGBTQ people.

The idea that two people cannot be in relationship with one another and simultaneously hold conflicting convictions is simply silly. Loving, civil, productive disagreement is admittedly a hard thing, but it’s possible. It’s necessary. People like Robert George and Cornel West, Princeton friends and colleagues who hold vastly differing views on most things, model it well. Just watch their recent discussion at Biola.

The Biola Center for Christian Thought also models it well, holding entire conferences on the value of collegial disagreement and living it out each year by bringing scholars from varying backgrounds to campus to pursue truth together (note: not always agreeing). Gabe Lyons and Andrew Sullivan, who spoke together on stage at Q Boston, are another model. They’ve become friends in spite of their agreeing to disagree on matters of sexuality (among other things).

Each of these examples showcases mutual respect, empathy, listening and love. But note how each is born out of proximity. These people are not online-only friends, speaking to each other from behind screens and trading tweets and blog barbs. They have offline relationships. Their connections are premised on more than just principles. They are to one another more than just @names who hold opinions. They are image-bearers of Christ, the fleshly neighbors we are called to love.

It can be easy in today’s world to live, breathe and lose oneself in ideas. Profound think-piece articles, fascinating documentaries, books, blogs, even entire college courses, have never been more abundant and accessible. There are great things about this, but also risks. We risk becoming bored, disenchanted or disconnected from the everyday rhythms and proximate communities that actually shape us.

Because make no mistake: It is the proximate that shapes us most. The physical, embodied rhythms of worship in community shape our desires (see Jamie Smith). If we lose the proximate community because we are distracted and lost in the chaotic maelstrom and unintelligible multivocality of Internet community, we lose everything. Perhaps that’s why calls to embrace more localized, intentional communities (for the sake of preservation, among other things) ring so true. It’s what Rod Dreher spoke of with “The Benedict Option” at Q Boston (another of my favorite talks).

To be able to grow in mind and character as part of a community with shared convictions, to have weekly rhythms with the same church family, to be able to sit around a table with people regularly, to embrace them, to cry and laugh and grow together, to disagree in love and debate without starting a flame war … this is what proximity is worth.*

*The title of this post is inspired by a lyric from one of my favorite songs of last year, “Parade,” by The Antlers: “When the streets get flooded, we know what proximity’s worth, ‘cause we’re already here, in the same place when our phones don’t work.”

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About
Brett currently works full-time for Biola University as managing editor for Biola magazine. He also writes movie reviews for Christianity Today and contributes frequently to Relevant magazine.


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